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I recently traveled to Italy on vacation. It had been four years since I'd been abroad and I was itching to go again.

I'm a big believer in travel. Even if it's not far, getting out of your neighborhood and comfort zone, learning about and appreciating others' way of life and opening your eyes to the world around you, I believe, are critical components to personal growth.

So, it was with that in mind that I headed back to Italy, choosing to go mostly to areas I'd never been like Lake Como and the Amalfi Coast. My husband and I explored our new surroundings, discovering off-the-path places like a farm-to-table pizza place in Tremezzo and a no-frills pasta and seafood restaurant in Positano, chatting with the little old ladies who owned and ran them and barely spoke a lick of English. We purchased custom, handmade Italian loafers at a tiny side street shop while listening to the life story of the man who crafted them. And, we met many a fellow tourist from Australia, England and Germany, chatting with them about where they were from and their travels and discoveries. Despite our varied backgrounds, we were all on the same mission: to learn about another culture. (That and see George Clooney!)

And we accomplished that goal. Not George, sadly, but the culture. We gazed upon great works of art from legendary artists in Rome to local ones in Ravello. We compared the difference between Northern and Southern cuisine, choosing our favorites. And we marveled at the amazing works of nature (and man) with the breathtaking landscapes and scenery you would have previously thought only a fictional painting could portray.

But perhaps the greatest lesson we received was a reminder. A reminder that no matter how beautiful and entertaining another locale can be, nothing truly compares to your own country. A reminder about how good it is to come home. We cherished our time there, appreciating how fortunate we were to be able to visit but after a full and fantastic two weeks, we were ready to return.

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder. In this case, it's true. You never appreciate home as much as once you've left it. And while my bed was calling my name, my DVR had shows piling up and I longed for creature comforts like a Chai Latte or Chicken Noodle Soup, it was my country I missed most.

Encountering other Americans overseas is thrilling. With one look, one overheard word, you know they're your people and the level of excitement that accompanies that revelation is unparalleled. You bond like long-lost friends, play the name game with towns, friends and establishments, searching desperately for that common link, sure you have some connection, desperate for a knowing phrase or feeling. The innate pride you have in your country, in being American shines through. (That is, until you run into "those" Americans: the loud, obnoxious, rude ones refusing to try to speak the language or adhere to the culture, the ones giving us all a bad name. But they're, thankfully, few and far between.)
Perhaps the pride is all the more poignant given the time of year. Ever since 2001, the end of summer, encroachment of fall and cool, crisp air signal more than just the start of the school year and football season. Ever since 2001, we are all reminded that this time of year also brings about a painful anniversary.

Perhaps I'm more emotional than some because I was there that day. It was my second day of work, second week in New York City and I stood on the sidewalk with thousands of strangers and watched Tower 1 collapse. Eleven years later, it's as visceral as ever. The sound, the smell, the fear -- it'll never leave me. But what also won't is the overwhelming feeling of pride I had in my country following the attacks. The way we came together, supported and helped one another was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Perhaps its even more profound because, on this particular year, we're once again fighting for our rights as a country, choosing who will lead it, who will protect us from further attacks, who will make us proud to call this place home.

On the flight returning home, a collective cheer echoed through the plane when they told us we had crossed over onto American soil. No matter how tame your trip is, how luxurious your accommodations, how friendly your hosts, there is something about being back on your land that makes you feel safer than anywhere else in the world. There was a sense of overwhelming pride to be who we are, to be Americans.

In my house, there's a strong Texas/Pennsylvania rivalry. It comes across in mostly everything my husband and I do. Jokes are made at the expense of the other's traditions and pronunciations and, when it comes to sports, look out. We also disagree on politics. He's a Republican; I'm a Democrat. But over in Italy and on that plane, we were from the same place, on the same team. There was no North vs. South, Eagles vs. Cowboys, no Right, no Left. We were both Americans and we were heading home.

When we landed and walked through the airport, a rush of excitement pulsed through my body. As we made our way to Customs, seeing our men and women in uniform, protecting our freedom, I got chills. And, after chatting briefly with a Homeland Security officer and answering all of the obligatory questions, he looked at us and, with a big, heartfelt smile and unparalleled intensity said, "Welcome home."

Home. That one, little word means so much and feels so good. So good, in fact, I think we'll stay put for a while, with a renewed appreciation for who we are and where we're from. We're Americans and we're pretty damn proud of it.